2013 film series


Man on Wire, James Marsh (2003)

“James Marsh’s documentary revisits the legendary stunt in which French wire walker Philippe Petit crossed between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974. A charismatic figure, Petit recruited a small crew of co-conspirators who helped him infiltrate the building, reach the roof of the south tower, shoot a fishing line to the north tower by bow and arrow, and eventually string a 450-pound cable between the two structures. In his spare time he liked to watch old heist movies on TV, and the documentary is wittily patterned after that genre: there’s the same iconic introduction of the crew members, the same meticulous planning, the same heart-stopping suspense when unanticipated complications arise on the scene. In archival photos Petit seems to float between the towers, a tiny black figure against a vivid blue sky; the images are all the more poignant for the unstated fact that Petit is still around when the buildings aren’t.” 94 mins. —J.R. Jones from the Chicago Reader

Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999)

“A gorgeous mirage of a movie, Claire Denis’ reverie about the French foreign legion in eastern Africa suggested by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, benefits especially from having been choreographed (by Bernardo Montet, who also plays one of the legionnaires). Combined with Denis’ superb eye for settings, Agnes Godard’s cinematography, and the director’s decision to treat major and minor elements as equally important, this turns some of the military maneuvers and exercises into thrilling pieces of filmmaking that surpass even Full Metal Jacket and converts some sequences in a disco into vibrant punctuations. The story, which drifts by in memory fragments, is told from the perspective of a solitary former sergeant (Denis Lavant, star of The Lovers on the Bridge) now living in Marseilles and recalling his hatred for a popular recruit (Gregoire Colin) that led to the sergeant’s discharge; the fact that his superior is named after the hero of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat and played by the same actor almost 40 years later (Michel Subor) adds a suggestive thread, as do the passages from Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. Most of all, Denis, who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, captures the poetry and atmosphere–and, more subtly, the women–of Africa like few filmmakers before her. A masterpiece.” 90 mins. — Jonathan Rosenbaum, from the Chicago Reader

The Five Obstructions, Lars Von Trier (2003)

“Lars Von Trier, notorious tormentor of innocent, defenseless women, picks on someone his own size this time, a fellow Danish filmmaker named Jorgen Leth. In the 1960’s, Mr. Leth made a 12-minute film called “The Perfect Human,” which Mr. von Trier claims to have seen 20 times and which he assigns his elder colleague to remake. The five new versions are made under increasingly exigent and absurd constraints — one is a cartoon, one must be shot in the worst place on earth and one must contain no shot lasting more than half a second — and the results are fascinating and strange. The heart of “The Five Obstructions,” though, is the psychological drama that develops as the mercurial Mr. von Trier faces off against the cool, implacable Mr. Leth. This examination of the arbitrariness and irrationality at the heart of the creative progress makes you wonder why anyone in his right mind would make a movie, and also grateful that oddballs like Mr. von Trier and Mr. Leth, against all reason, bother to do so.” 90 mins. — A. O. Scott from the New York Times

Upstream Color, Shane Carruth (2013)

“At the start of this new drama…a botanist brushes blue dust from a plant and makes infusions and capsules from worms that he sifts from its soil. The result is a drug that induces a state of bewildered suggestibility, which he forces on Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young video producer. Soon bilked of her home, her money, and, above all, her sense of self, Kris sets out to uncover the mysteries of her possession and to put her life back together. Filming with an unflinching biomorphic intimacy, as if looking at the body, inside and out, through a microscope, Carruth quickly leapfrogs over the grotesque and into the transcendent. Kris, it turns out, isn’t suffering alone, and her connection to other survivors—especially to a disgraced stockbroker (Carruth)—spins the biological science-fiction drama into romance. Skittering, fragmented editing and glowing images suggest a tenuous hold on reason, and also abysses of irreparable loss; subplots of a sound recordist in search of effects, a pig farm with a special allure for the victims, and recurring phrases from Thoreau’s “Walden” intertwine to yield a vision as vast and as natural as it is reflexively cinematic and fiercely compassionate.” 96 mins. —Richard Brody from The New Yorker

Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)

One of the most influential political films in history, The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo, vividly re-creates a key year in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot on the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Pontecorvo’s tour de force has astonishing relevance today. 121 mins. —Synopsis from the Criterion Collection

This is Not A Film, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (2011)

This video essay was recorded in Tehran …. as Mr. Panahi, one of the leading Iranian filmmakers of the past decade, was under a legal assault from his government…
Careful to obey the letter of that injunction…Mr. Panahi did not write a screenplay or wield a full-size camera. A colleague, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb … comes to his apartment to shoot, and Mr. Panahi restricts his activities to talking, recording with his iPhone, commenting on some of his earlier films and reading aloud from existing scripts. So if this is not a film, it is, among other things, a statement of creative resistance in the face of tyranny and a document of intellectual freedom under political duress. …While “This Is Not a Film” bristles with a topical, real-world urgency…it is also a provocative, radical and at times surprisingly playful meditation on the nature of representation. Using modest, ready-to-hand techniques and a format that seems to emphasize the most banal, literal-minded, artless aspects of picture taking, Mr. Panahi has constructed a subtle, strange and haunting work of art. 77 mins. —A. O. Scott in The New York Times

The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf (1998)

In a poor area in Tehran, some families reveal to the Social Services that one of their neighbors keeps his children. “The Apple” is a stunning feature film debut from Samira Makhmalbaf, the 18-year-old daughter of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. …Richly allusive and beautifully photographed, “The Apple” follows the aftermath of a real-life situation in which a father had kept his two daughters confined to their home since birth. When neighbors reported the situation to the welfare authorities in Teheran, the daughters, who are slightly retarded, were removed from the home and returned to their parents only on the condition that the father allow the two to leave home and explore the outside world. Makhmalbaf heard about the story on a Wednesday and began filming on the Sunday four days later. She follows the return of the girls and their ensuing exploits as their father’s philosophy bridles against the welfare edict. In addition to the father, the two daughters, and their mother-who is blind-the story is populated by a cast of characters including a representative from the welfare department and other children who the young girls meet during their steps into the outside world. 84 mins.—Jeremy Lehrer from Indiewire

Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett (1977)

“The first feature of the highly talented black filmmaker Charles Burnett, who set most of his early films in Watts (including My Brother’s Wedding and To Sleep With Anger); this one deals episodically with the life of a slaughterhouse worker. Shot on a year’s worth of weekends for under $10,000, this remarkable work is conceivably the single best feature about ghetto life. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry as one of the key works in American cinema—ironic and belated recognition of a film that, until this recent restoration, had virtually no distribution. It shouldn’t be missed. With Henry Gayle Sanders.” 87 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader